'Prince of Wales' earning place in Spanish hearts
Bale's first Real treble a watershed as he steps into Ronaldo slipstream, writes Ian Hawkey
GARETH BALE woke up yesterday morning at his home in the western suburbs of Madrid with his first yellow La Liga match ball safely housed among his more precious souvenirs.
All his Real Madrid team-mates who defeated Valladolid 4-0 had signed it, with various individual congratulations for his three goals, and a thank you from Karim Benzema for the Bale cross that set up Madrid's second.
Bale will never have felt more strongly that he belongs at Madrid. But had he scanned the local media, over his breakfast, he would have noticed some commentators still trying to place him, categorise what type of player he really is, what influences he draws on.
His hat-trick defined him as a 'New Gary Lineker' statistically – Lineker, once of Barcelona, is the only other Briton, post-war, to have struck three goals in a La Liga fixture – but also, apparently, stylistically.
"His goal sense is not just those long shots that shine in highlights packages," purred Alfredo Relano, senior columnist of the sports tabloid, 'As', "it extends to his being in the right place to pick up a poor clearance, or to receive a pass, a bit like Lineker."
Elsewhere, he was being likened, as a Welsh icon, to Tom Jones, in an excitable piece in the national daily, 'ABC', who barely stopped short of a belting rendition of 'Delilah' so taken were they with Bale's swagger.
'ABC' noted: "He's from Wales, from the mines, where almost from birth, everybody is smeared in coal. They are born strong. Just look at Tom Jones, with his golden voice."
The front front page of 'As' anointed Bale 'The Prince of Wales'.
Their rival 'Marca' went cleverer, 'El Principe de Goles', punning on the resemblance, in Spanish, between the words for Wales and for goals. 'Gales' is the country, 'Goles' are what Bale now has nine of, from his first three, injury-interrupted, months as a Real Madrid player.
A little cheekily, the Catalan – pro-Barcelona – newspaper, 'El Periodico', headlined its report: 'Bale dresses up as Ronaldo'.
It was an obvious point but, around Madrid, Bale-Ronaldo comparisons tend to be carefully avoided. Yes, Bale had entered Ronaldo territory – his is the first Madrid hat-trick by any player other than the Portuguese for more than two years; between Gonzalo Higuain's treble against Real Betis in mid-October 2011 and Bale's, Ronaldo has struck 13 – but he had not stepped into Ronaldo's shoes. Rather, he had stepped into his slipstream.
The pro-Madrid media are on a fierce drive to emphasise that Ronaldo, who they have been pushing for the 2013 Ballon D'Or award, is currently peerless, above comparison with Lionel Messi, Franck Ribery or anybody else, including the one footballer who cost more than he did in transfer fees.
Bale has been studiously careful to praise his Portuguese team-mate as "the best player in the world" and, even after an immensely satisfying night for a fluent Madrid, his colleagues, while generous to the Welshman, weren't forgetting who sits on the tallest pedestal in the Bernabeu dressing-room.
"Gareth Bale is a great player," said Marcelo, the full-back, "but Ronaldo is unique, the best."
Ronaldo was absent on Saturday, for the second successive match while he recovers from a minor strain. So, as for the victory against Galatasaray in the Champions League four nights earlier, Madrid and La Liga's top goalscorer watched from a VIP box in the corner of stadium.
From there, he has seen Bale take up some of the positions that would normally be Ronaldo's.
Indeed, after four minutes against Galatasaray, he watched Bale released by just the kind of through-ball Madrid's midfield suppliers work at perfecting, for Ronaldo to run on to and from which Ronaldo has amassed a large proportion of his 226 Real goals. This one, from Isco, gave Bale a fine opportunity. He missed.
Bale's next 176 minutes in a Ronaldo-less Madrid turned out a good deal better. A goal direct from a free-kick, from the range Ronaldo might very well have imposed his own right to take, established the lead for 10-man Madrid against Galatasaray.
The three goals against Valladolid ticked each box of the 'perfect' hat-trick: a header, a right-footed finish, a goal with his left. His cross for Benzema's goal forms part of a valuable pattern, for which the France striker will be grateful.
Headed goals have, until now, never been Benzema's forte at Madrid. The precise service he receives from Bale is discovering his inner target-man.
With Ronaldo's return to fitness, a still more potent Madrid front-line must be anticipated. Bale's challenge then may be to maintain the liberated flair of Saturday.
His coach Carlo Ancelotti found himself considering after the match, whether, given the intelligent and varied movement across positions of Bale and others, this might have been his team's 'most complete' performance of the season.
He was careful not to say it was, on a night when Ronaldo was only spectating, and the calibre of opposition limited. Ancelotti did make one declaration. "Gareth Bale's period of adaptation is over," he said.
Saturday's hat-trick was a watershed. He should anticipate more signed matchballs. (© Independent News Service)